V-E Day in Halifax, May 7-8, 1945

Improvised Beer Gardens and More

Canada has not been exempt from the volatile combination of a restive military and alcohol. The Forces fracas in Brisbane, Australia in 1940 was more than matched in Halifax, Nova Scotia when the German defeat was announced May 7, 1945. A two-day riot ensued in which the Canadian Navy and other Forces personnel played a part. Some civilians were also involved.

Many were injured, often by falls onto shattered glass. Three died, two from alcohol poisoning and one, a naval officer, from circumstances never fully explained. The city was looted and numerous fires were started, some by arson.

A catalyst was the raiding city liquor stores, as well as Alexander Keith’s brewery on Lower Water Street. As in Brisbane, official news accounts showed shock at the breakdown of civil order and military discipline.

The incident, often typed as the celebration Halifax would prefer to forget, has been reviewed many times in books, magazines, television, and blogs. This two-part article by Bob Gordon in the magazine Esprit de Corps gave a succinct overview. It suggested a plausible immediate cause: allowing thousands of personnel to roam a city perfect of entertainment facilities, and not arresting the first miscreants.

This blog essay by George Burden is a further excellent survey. It offers more of a psychological interpretation, basically that extreme circumstances can cause abandonment of long-established social reflexes and habits.

Today, Canada projects an image of amiability and near-pacifism. We did participate in the war against terrorism in Afghanistan and until recently had jets bombing ISIS in Syria. But most military efforts in recent decades have been in the peacekeeping mode pioneered by Lester B. Pearson, the former Liberal Prime Minister and diplomat. Canadians did this work in Suez, Cyprus, Bosnia, and elsewhere.

In the mid-1940s though, Canada formed a significant part of Allied armies. Its navy in particular was among the biggest in the world. Despite the Conscription Crisis and the reluctance of Quebec fully to join the war effort, Canada played a significant role in the fighting. It participated fully, for example,  in the Italian campaign, Normandy invasion, and liberation of The Netherlands.

The development of war-like habits cannot be turned off and on like a spigot. Halifax in particular was a focal point of Canada’s participation in the Battle of the Atlantic. The city saw plenty of travail, any city does involved in a major war effort, but Halifax was the first receiving point for the damaged ships and wounded men who came back from the sinkings.

In a situation like that, normal sensitivities and courtesies are blunted and even outside the war theatre proper people will act more like soldiers do. That said, as bad as it was, there was only one death and the injured were mostly a result of their own haplessness.

The role of alcohol and specifically beer was a huge part of what happened. Why did the men feel emboldened to loot and steal thousands of cases of beer from Keith’s brewery and break into Nova Scotia Liquor Commission stores?

First, there were no bars in Halifax then, no taverns. There were restaurants, but they had closed so operators and staff could enjoy V-E celebrations – not that the city had planned had very much, some fireworks and a few parades. Movie theatres were shut. Liquor stores were shut for the two days, a Monday and Tuesday, over which the V-E was celebrated.

Yet, 9,000 military came into town from bases and their ships – with almost nothing to do. And the navy (the admiral in charge of that theatre) let another few thousand ratings into the city the second day, after it was clear disturbances had occurred.

Some accounts stress long-standing resentments by the military in a town that had difficulty absorbing them over the six-year war. Some soldiers and sailors, “uninvited guests“ as frequently termed, felt they were being gouged and in general disrespected by local merchants. Townspeople for their part were (understandably) fed up with the periodic small riots that occurred on naval paydays throughout the war. Halifax was a small port city before the war, not an international one and it offered no amenities of the type sailors and other military were accustomed to on postings.

This article by Jay White about the ill-fated Ajax Club says much, in my view, about the real cause of the rioting. A society figure had opened a club which sold beer to members of all services. It served thousands a month. But it was closed in 1942 due to apparent pressure and influence of a nearby church. After the closing, the only drinking service members could do was at a wet canteen, and indeed it operated (with no trouble) during V-E but it wasn’t nearly sufficient to serve the many thousands in town and ran out of beer anyway.

Halifax, at that period, just wasn’t up to the demands placed on it to accomodate the “r & r” of service personnel and, in my view again, it paid the price by seeing the city trashed at the war’s end. It just couldn’t make the transition needed from the 1930s when it was a small place dominated by a local elite and not many years away from the prohibition period of the 1920s. It was impossible to apply a small city’s mores to an unprecedented situation, the great growth of the military presence and in particular the influx of many from Toronto, Montreal, and other areas where social and cultural habits were different.

Some stories on the riots, both contemporary (1945) and recent, make much of hostility between “Upper Canadians” and the local people of Halifax and Dartmouth.  At a minimum, it was probably an exacerbating factor. Of course, Halifax had performed well in WW I (and suffered greatly from the 1917 Explosion), but there was an “international“, or cross-cultural, factor present in the 1940s that didn`t exist earlier. The fate of the Ajax Club shows this clearly. Something else that shows it is the rapidity of communications by 1945.

The news of victory came on an AP wire. The federal government hadn`t announced the end of the war but events overtook it and people decided to celebrate anyway. In 1918, there would have been a more orderly way to announce victory and more time would have been available to plan properly.

Of course, nothing is simple. Had the personel been kept on their bases, had the province and city planned earlier and more effectively for V-E, had early contravenants been arrested, the riot probably wouldn’t have occurred. But if you are looking for one evident cause, I think it was the lack of places to eat and drink in town on those two days. When you see pictures of sailors drinking in public parks, in effect making them makeshift pubs, it is evident that had normal facilities been available the tumult would not have occurred, or been much less impactful.

The admiral who allowed his men into town, Leonard Warren Murray, was relieved of his command in 1946. There is an odd coda to his story. Despite having had a full career in the Canadian navy from the age of only 15 in 1911, he emigrated to England in 1946 and qualified as a solicitor three years later.

As one who knows the trade, I can say it’s a little late to make the transition, but he did. I guess immersion in the hearings gave him a taste for a life in the law, or the twilight of one’s working life at any rate.

The chair of the Royal Commission of Inquiry was the Honourable Roy Kellock, a well-known Supreme Court of Canada justice. You can read his report here.

N.B. Numerous statements herein drew on the numerous 1945 press accounts collected at this link.

Note re images: The first image was sourced from George Burden`s article linked above. The second, from The Chronicle Herald`s archive pages, here. All intellectual property in or to the images belongs solely to their lawful owner or authorized user. Images are believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.